Recognizing, diagnosing, and treating arthritis can be fraught with difficulty. The pain and discomfort, as well as loss of mobility, in the affected areas can make life much harder for seniors and their caregivers. Here is a one-stop guide to the basics of arthritis and how it can change the lives of caregivers as well as the seniors in their care.
Signs and Symptoms
Arthritis generally causes stiffness and pain in the joints. This can occur anywhere on the body, and can also be accompanied by redness and even swelling. Yet the telltale signs are usually pain and loss of mobility, making bending joints very painful or even impossible. Joints can even become permanently deformed, losing all mobility and causing severe pain. The range of scale of the pain of arthritis goes from mild to severe—the level of pain does not indicate or rule out arthritis. Some people can manage it just fine with limited medical intervention, while others find it debilitating. It can also depend on the day, with certain triggers making for good days or bad days.
Arthritis is typically caused by one of two things: a wearing or tearing of cartilage between bones or an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack joints as if they carry an infection. Osteoarthritis, the one that wears away cartilage, damages the body by allowing bones to grind together, which is as painful as it sounds. Eventually, the bones weaken at the ends, and this can cause a permanent loss in mobility. The cartilage can be torn by injury or wear and tear, or be eaten by infection. Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by autoimmune responses. Essentially, the body acts as if the cells that make up the joints are an infection and attacks them like it would a virus or bacteria, eventually eating away at it. Eventually, cartilage and bone can be damaged and worn away.
Gout is another common type of arthritis. This is typically an inflammation that is very painful, triggered by foods or activities that cause the body to have an allergic or stress reaction. Gout tends to have flare-ups rather than day-to-day symptoms, especially if managed with proper diet, exercise, and medication.
One important way to determine if a senior is experiencing arthritis is family history. Many times, arthritis and its types get passed down through generations. If one’s genetic makeup includes arthritic history, it makes sense that one’s children could have the same genes, and so on. Caregivers do well to note whether the persons in their care have family histories of developing arthritis. They are also more at risk if they have had a previous joint injury or infection. Obesity can also stress joints into developing arthritis, so it is well for seniors to maintain a healthy weight and exercise in ways that are low-stress to the joints, such as swimming or practicing yoga.
Treatment for arthritis can be challenging, and it often depends upon the type of arthritis. Once symptoms of arthritis have been identified, a doctor will need to examine the affected areas by conducting a thorough physical, run a few tests (sometimes blood tests, sometimes tests on fluid from the affected area, sometimes both), or even ask for x-rays to see what is happening to the bones in an area of the body. Once it has been diagnosed, treatment for arthritis usually is given in stages based on the severity of the symptoms and the patient’s reaction to treatment.
First, doctors will likely recommend lifestyle changes to support healthy joints. Dietary supplements, weight loss, and exercise can all help relieve joint pain and stiffness, especially when used together. Some types of arthritis will flare up in reaction to certain foods or types of activity; keeping a log of these flare-ups and what is done or eaten each day can help find a pattern to their causes.
Physical therapy might be next, or it may be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes. Physical therapy might require the senior to go to a rehabilitation center or to see a licensed physical therapist for strength and flexibility training, or it may simply require the application of heat or ice to the affected areas for certain periods of time. Massages, water therapy, and even splints can help alleviate some of the pain and stiffness caused by arthritis.
Next is medication. Acetaminophen, or Tylenol, is an easy over-the-counter way to treat flare-ups, and they do very little damage to the body over time. They do not stop inflammation, however, so any swelling or pain caused by swelling will not be reduced by this medication. If this does not work, or ceases to work after a time, NSAID pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen can be used to treat the pain of a flare-up. These, however, can cause damage to the body if used frequently over time, and therefore should not be used first. If over-the-counter medications fail, doctors will move on to prescription medications, such as steroids or biologics. All of these carry serious risks and side effects, however.
If the pain is severe and surgery is possible, doctors may recommend replacing joints with surgery, creating artificial or healthily restored joints. These surgeries are very risky, however, and can result in long healing times, which can cause a host of other complications. The body can also simply reject an artificial knee or hip and joint, which will not be apparent until the surgery is completed. Surgery is the last and most invasive treatment for arthritis.
For natural ways to help arthritis, check out seniorsmatter.com for an article on food and drink that can help manage arthritis symptoms.
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